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April 9, 2021, 12:04 p.m.
Business Models

Mel Magazine reinvented men’s media, and now it’s hoping for a second act

“It’s paramount that we don’t come back as like, a new sneakerhead website or something. I just can’t do that.”

Mel Magazine has not left the building. Josh Schollmeyer, the editor-In-chief of the internet’s foremost twisted, hilarious, poignant, deranged, and assiduously one-of-a-kind men’s magazine, is hedging on a comeback.

“In the last week we’ve had 40 investment inquiries. I’ve been doing a number of calls every day with a number of big media brands and marketers,” he tells me, over the phone, a few days after Mel announced an indeterminate hiatus. “There’s nothing official, but we continue to look very hard for the right partner.” In an ideal future, adds Schollmeyer, he’ll soon be bootstrapped with the cash to rehire his laid-off staff, who could quickly get back to their crucial work. The next chapter of Mel might be different in its monetization strategy and business model, but its core praxis — exploring the stark tics, anxieties, and obsessions that consolidate into the modern man — would be the same. On that point, says Schollmeyer, he refuses to compromise.

“I’d rather leave at the top of our game than die by a thousand paper cuts,” he continues. “And I think the right party is out there. I think there are people who do want us to be us, and see value in us. But it’s paramount that we don’t come back as like, a new sneakerhead website or something. I just can’t do that.”

For now, the future that Schollmeyer speaks about is hypothetical. These are the facts: Mel Magazine has been funded by Dollar Shave Club since its inception in 2015, and on March 26, the publication tweeted that the partnership was coming to an end. Mel would embark on a national search for new ownership, while its 23 staffers were left without jobs.

The disbandment caught many people off guard; mere days before the shuttering, Mel had announced a pair of newsletters to further furnish its editorial offerings, and Schollmeyer notes that the site was raking in more traffic than ever before — pulling in around four million visitors per month in 2020.

Unfortunately, none of those milestones necessarily stabilize the precariousness of digital media. Sure, there is a certain immunity derived from being a boutique trusteeship of a multinational razor blade startup — Mel famously never ran any advertisements and eluded the death rattle of commercial-revenue newsrooms — but it still lived and died by the priorities of the boardroom above it.

“Let me put it this way. I don’t think it’s ever great to have a single source of funding,” says Schollmeyer. “And every day of the company was pretty existential for me. We weren’t part of the core [Dollar Shave Club] business. Was it abrupt? Kinda. Was it not? Kinda.”

I am a longtime Mel fan and Mel contributor, and if I’m being honest with myself, I wasn’t completely blindsided by the news. The site had an incredible way of subverting its parent proprietorship; it gleefully threw out all of the baggage you’d expect from a corporate content deal. The magazine’s fleet of writers turned in profound longform profiles on, say, a professional cuckolding consultant, or a goodhearted male gigolo, which scintillated with a bygone, thick-magazine glamour.

Elsewhere, they’d enthusiastically provide the sort of greasy red-light service journalism that inspired countless lost young men to enter Incognito mode. (Mel’s “Most Popular” tab perennially hosted a story headlined “How to make your loads bigger.”) They’ve dug up the definitive histories on countless niche cultural characters and provided shockingly comprehensive scientific distillations of every exotic sexual ambiguity known to humankind, but personally, I think Mel was at its apex when it delved deep into the fundamental essence of dudehood. No magazine did a better job of examining the bewildering social bonds that tie the masculine experience together. Last year, I wanted to write a story about the eternal tradition of young adult men drunkenly ringing the doorbells of their college apartments when they’re back in town. There was only one publication in the world equipped to take the pitch.

Perhaps that’s why the prolonged survival of the site always felt a little iffy. Mel took a payload of cash from the VC universe and spent six straight years nurturing its dream magazine completely outside of the Dollar Shave Club atmosphere. The foreboding contraction in scope that slowly chokes the spirit out of a once-beloved digital media enterprise — the rising tide of sponcon, naked SEO bids, or streams of resignations — were never visible in the Mel brand. The staff partied until the bitter end, when someone shut off the power.

I’ve found myself sitting on a pile of orphaned Mel angles ever since the site went dormant. What I’d give for another plunge into an ultra-niche community of sexual mavericks, or a fleshed-out taxonomy on a pervasive Type Of Guy. It will be a long time before I can sufficiently train my brain to avoid drifting into the nether regions of musty low-culture; to understand that currently, I’m unable to pitch a profile on the Coors Light Twins to anyone who’d print it. That’s what the media ecosystem loses without Mel. The site covered heady topics like incel violence and the ongoing flood of anti-Asian racism beautifully, but it’s hard to find any other entity on the internet that was more committed, simply and purely, to being a fun read every day.

“I always wanted to have fun. Everyone kept saying we were the last outpost of fun. I’m really proud of our more serious stories, I think we did incredible work. But if you ask me what my favorite stuff we published is, it’s, like, the oral history of the super soaker,” says Schollmeyer. “The morning we announced we were going on hiatus, we got a pitch about who would take a bigger dump, Godzilla or King Kong. We would’ve gone to the preeminent zoologist and gotten the definitive answer. That’s what was compelling about the site. Anything, on its surface, could’ve looked silly. But when you started reading it, you were really learning something.”

Schollmeyer tells me he burned out on the internet in 2015 when Refinery29, which started out as a women’s fashion site, was providing tickertape updates about the horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino. It was proof that the click economy had resulted in a network of bespoke publications that, ironically, all read and sounded the same. Mel did everything it could to break the monotony — to be passionately brassy, weird, and gonzo — even as the scant few other sites that shared the same DNA (The Outline, Deadspin) disintegrated under the firm pressure of capital. Schollmeyer and his staff are leaving the internet at a moment where it needs Mel more than ever. For all of our sakes, let’s hope they get a second wind.

“I don’t know if it was the alchemy of the staff, or the overall vibe, but I don’t think anyone is going to be able to replicate Mel, no matter how hard they try, or what parts they bring in,” says Schollmeyer. “The only people who can do it are us.”

Luke Winkie is a journalist and former pizza maker in New York City. He has previously written for Nieman Lab about Stat, Newsmax and OAN, and Study Hall.

Image by Mel art director Sam Dworkin.

POSTED     April 9, 2021, 12:04 p.m.
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